With little over 500 in number, the close-knit community is representative of the adage, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. Through hard work and sheer grit, they have overcome great odds to make a success of their lives. It’s not without reason that their stir-fried noodles and steamed dumplings give stiff competition to our biryani. The same holds true for their hairstyles which to this day are unmatched.
The Chinese presence in India dates back to early 19th century when the first generation set foot on Indian soil.
Just as Britishers ruled our country, the Japanese ruled China. Unable to bear the oppression, some began to move away to other countries in search of a better life. Many moved to neighbouring countries like India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. It wasn’t until much later, that the Japanese left China due to the combined efforts of Nationalist and Communist leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.
Of the main communities which migrated to India were Hakka, Hubei and Shandong.
The Hakka community is rooted in the lands bordering the Yellow River in China. Known for their nomadic nature and adaptive tendencies, the Hakkas finally settled down in the Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces in Southern China, before moving to different parts of the world. The Hakkas have a dominant presence in the hotel and beauty industry. In India, the first settlers arrived in Calcutta, now Kolkata, before spreading out to different states. Due to their nomadic nature, they are often called ‘Jews of Asia’.
The term Hubei is derived from the amalgamation of two words − Hu means lake and Bei means North. Hailing from a province in Central China, this community also sought greener pastures. The community has a strong presence in the medical industry especially dentistry. Interestingly, the ethnic teeth cleaners you see sitting on pavements near Charminar were first taught the basics of teeth cleaning and ceramic filling by the Chinese dentists in the Hyderabad.
Shan means mountain, while dong means east. The Shandong community is known for shoe making and laundry services. They were among the first to come out of China.
Most of the Chinese names allude to nature and are named according to directions. The name holds a crucial place in the scheme of things as one can easily recognise a person’s native place as they reflect directions. Take for instance, the name Beijing which is the capitol of China, here Bei means north and Jing means capital; the city is in North China.
Decoding Chinese directions:
Bei – North
Nan – South
Dong – East
Xi – West
The earliest migrants came by sea and land. Peter Yu King, who runs a laundry in Secunderabad and is the treasurer for the Chinese association in the twin cities, remembers his father being the first of the Chinese who came to India in the 1930s.
“My father Yu Pai Chuan, belonged to Shandong. He came to India by ship along with 30 others and landed in Madras. He liked the atmosphere of the country and decided to stay here,” reminisces Peter Yu.
Since Indian food was not palatable to the Britishers, his father opened a restaurant with others in Madras. “The Britishers couldn’t eat the spicy Indian food. My father decided to cook Chinese food which was a big hit with the Britons who soon became our regular clientele,” recalls Peter.
But the prosperity enjoyed by the Chinese soon came to an end after the Quit India Movement, when India attained independence. Many Chinese left the country, fearing their business may shut down as the Britishers left. The food enjoyed by them didn’t excite Indians who were unused to some of the dishes like the snakes and frogs. While some left, others switched to more practical professions.
“Eventually my dad left the food business and went into shoe making in Madras. Later on, he was invited by some relatives from Shandong who ran a laundry service in Hyderabad to join them. Since 1960, Hyderabad has been our home,” says Peter Yu King.
Bringing the new into the old
Most of the Indian-born Chinese still follow the same culture and tradition which have been handed down over the generations. The rules are pretty flexible when it came to religious practices. Everyone has the freedom to choose the religion they want. Most importantly, there is no caste differentiation.
While some believe in Christianity, others in Buddhism; in Hyderabad, it is quite common for the wife to be following Buddhism and the husband practising Christianity and vice versa.
Silverious Teng Shin Mein and his wife Pou Lian Anne Teng manufacture and supply raw noodles, tofu, and wontons to star hotels in the city. Like most Hakka marriage celebrations, they too had a simple Christian wedding which was held at Pou Lian Anne’s home. “We met at a friend’s place and it was love at first sight for both of us. We met each other on and off. In between, Anne left for Calcutta but we kept in touch. By that time, both of us knew how we felt and decided to get married,” says Silverious Teng Shin Mein, smilingly. Simplicity sets the precedent in most of their celebrations. Shin Mein and Anne wedding was on similar lines.
Tea holds a significant place in the celebrations. Green tea is offered to the elders as a sign of respect. During reception, the couple drinks from glasses and goblets joined with red string or ribbon. Good luck goes hand in hand with the red colour for the Chinese. Understandably, it is bad to use red in any form at funerals.
Chinese food is the go-to choice when it comes to eating out, other cuisines following after that. And the community has cashed in on the popularity by opening restaurants which dole out scrumptious Indian Chinese fare day after day. Perhaps the most popular eatery and the oldest is the Secunderabad Nanking started in 1957 by late KY Liu. His son Sze Yuan Liu, the president for the Hyderabad Overseas Chinese Friendship Association (HOCA), now runs the restaurant. “In those days, Hyderabadis didn’t enjoy Chinese food since it was bland. Most of our customers belonged to the defence forces and members of the Secunderabad club,” says Sze Yuan Liu. On observing the dearth of locals, his parents decided to marry Indian ingredients with Chinese recipes in a bid to popularise the eatery. The gamble worked; to this day their ginger chicken, crispy chicken, prawn pakoda, chicken pakoda, chicken wings and the evergreen chicken lollipops are the most popular dishes on their menus.
Today, they are owners of seven restaurants in the twin cities. “In all the places we have been to, Hyderabad has a very warm vibe to it. When we opened the first eatery, we could see the Tivoli Theatre, Secunderabad club and the Gymkhana grounds from our Secunderabad branch. Back then, everybody knew each other, now people have become very impersonal. There used to be a time when my mom and I would get a bunch of vegetables for just ten rupees from the market, which has changed obviously. But, I am happy that people still remember us and love to dine in our restaurant,” adds Sze Yuan Liu.
Hyderabad Overseas Chinese Friendship Association (HOCA) was started in August 17, 1997.
The Hyderabad Chinese meet once in a month to get up to speed on each other’s lives.
Chopsticks were invented and used in ancient China as early as the 16th century BC. They were made of ivory which would turn blue if the food was poisoned.
Chinese don’t use Ajinomoto (Chinese salt) in every recipe.
The family structure is firmly rooted in principles. To this day, even in China, they don’t believe in paperwork, preferring to go by a man’s word. Promises are upheld, to the point where the son ensures his father’s word is kept even after his death.
Though friendly by nature, they are still misunderstood which explains their isolation from locals in the city.
Proprietor of Chung Hua restaurants, Michael Li shares the story behind his eatery’s name. “We opened our first restaurant in Basheerbagh which was the heart of the city then. So we came up with Chung − Center; Hua – Beautiful… both together become Chung Hua, meaning beautiful restaurant,” says Michael, laughing. His son, Vincent Li has followed in Michael’s footsteps and helps run the restaurant now. “Earlier we used to cook the food, but we now train locals in the techniques.”
His wife, Shirley Li Huang, runs a beauty parlour in Secunderabad area, helped by her daughter-in-law Lilly Chung. Quiz them if they ever feel like going back? Michael quips, “We never felt like outsiders in Hyderabad. We vote like everyone else and have a say in running of the administration. We enjoy the Mughlai food, what’s not to love about Hyderabad.”
The words ‘Feng Shui’ mean Wind and Water where scientific logic comes together with nature in seamless harmony. Once a closely guarded secret used by the Chinese emperors, today Feng Shui’s influence can be seen across the globe. It’s there in the Laughing Buddha’s being kept in a niche or the wind chimes which sway making gentle music and the bamboo plants which we water every day in installments. But is Chinese vaasthu, really effective?
According to Lillian Hsieh, yes it works. Lillian Hsieh along with her husband runs a guest house especially for Chinese at West Marredpally. A strong believer in Feng Shui, each and every aspect of her house adheres to the ancient science.
Just as Indians believe applying turmeric to the main door will shoo away bad vibes, the Chinese place Pa Kua (round mirror with an octagonal wooden frame) on the main door to protect against negative energy. Additionally, they also tie red paper with inspirational quotes inscribed on it at their entrance. “It is said that financial woes go away if one places a frog seated on a bed of coins just inside the entrance of the house. The logic being the money will jump inside like a frog ending financial problems,” explains Lillian Hsieh.
- Mandarin is the official language of Chinese.
- Standard Mandarin is spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan and Cantonese in Hong Kong and Macau.
- Chinese language, though simple is very difficult to learn.
- There is no gender difference.
- The Chinese language has one similarity with Telugu. Just as Telugu has different dialects spoken in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Chinese too has nearly ten dialects. There is no hard and fast rule in the writing style ‑‑ it can be written from any side and is read from top to bottom.
Besides running the guest house, Lillian Hsieh and her husband Sam Hsieh also work as translators for the Chinese who visit Hyderabad. The duo is among a select number of people well-versed in Mandarin.
Learn Chinese language:
Xie Xie (Shay Shay) – Thank you
Ni Hau ma (Nee Hau Ma) – How are you?
Xie (Shee) – Sit
Lai (L ah ee) – Coming
Shui (Shoo) – Water
He (Hee) – drink
Chi fan (Shee Faa) – Have lunch
Rooted in India!
Most of the Chinese have made Hyderabad their home and plan to live the rest of their life here. Take for instance, brothers John Young and Harry Young who run Jhon lee and co., the oldest and first shoe shop of the city in Abids. John makes the shoes while Harry markets them. Chinese shoes, they say are long lasting. “My dad C K Young was a carpenter actually, but he later switched to shoe making and came to India leaving my mom and sister in China. Once he established his business in 1955, he brought my mom here but left my sister with my grandparents,” recalls Harry.
Due to tensions between India and China in 1962, their father couldn’t go back to China. Communication was more or less non-existent by then. Subsequently, the brothers who were born here lost touch with their sister and grandparents. “Until now I haven’t seen my sister, she is in China and we are here. I don’t think we will able to see her. We can’t really afford the ticket. There are not many takers for handmade shoes as everybody wants cheap goods and handmade shoes are a little costlier. Our kids don’t have any interest in continuing the business and have taken up corporate jobs,” reflects Harry.
Rest in peace
When it comes to burials, the Chinese in the city were allotted an exclusive three acre graveyard at Tumkunta in 1999. Both the Buddhist and Christian Chinese are buried here. Previously, a sizeable number of the community was buried in the Christian grave yard, near the Defence colony at Trimulgherry. However that soon ended when the Defence authorities objected to the route being taken for the funeral processions since it passed through their area. Following efforts from members of the community, the then government allotted the land at Tumkunta.
On any given day, people from the community can beat even a true blue Hyderabadi when it comes to knowing every nook and corner of the city. That’s partly due to the stories handed down by their parents over the generations. To prove it, Jhon Yong, who was born in the King Memorial hospital in Hyderabad, asks me the current name of the hospital. When I fail, he laughs and proudly reveals, “It’s the Gandhi Hospital where I was born in 1950.”
— The script of Chinese and Japanese is one and the same.
–The Chinese language can be written from any side.
— Abacus the calculating method from beads, originated in China.
— The number 8 is considered lucky in China.
— The dragon is a symbol of good fortune.
— Red is considered to be lucky in China and symbolises good fortune and joy. It is used extensively in the community.
— Rice is the staple food.
— Chinese tea cups don’t have handles.
— The Chinese New Year is celebrated on February 16 every year.
— Each New Year represents an animal. Like the dragon, monkey, rat, cat, rooster etc.
— National animal: The Giant Panda is the national animal of China.
— National fruit: The kiwi fruit (scientific name Actinidia deliciosa) is the national fruit of China.
— National Sport: Table Tennis is the national sport of China. It’s officially known as Ping Pang Qiu.
— Porcelain: Porcelain originated in China. Europe imported China’s fine porcelain because it couldn’t unlock the secrets of how to copy it. China had been making porcelain bowls and pots since, at the very latest, 100 BCE. It had a monopoly and intended to keep it that way. For over a century, Europe sipped its teas in dishes.